Journalists cannot allow World Cup to 'sportswash' Qatar's human-rights abuses

'Sportswashing' is when countries that have deplorable human-rights records use sports or mega-events to clean their global reputation. They use the vent as a type of shield from criticism and strategically shine a light on less uncomfortable issues. 

Questions must be asked of regime notorious for oppressive policies

FIFA president Gianni Infantino and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at the recent men's World Cup draw in Doha, Qatar. (Darko Bandic/Associated Press)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Just before leaving the storied CBC radio program As It Happens in February, celebrated journalist Carol Off told Matt Galloway of The Current that she believes journalists telling stories from a lens of human rights and justice "is not a bias, it's an obligation". 

The job of a journalist is to report fairly and accurately. And it is to examine and question the difficult and report on what is there.

I love sports and I love journalism. That means that my job as a sports journalist and columnist is something I am proud of. It also means that within the world of sports that I do love, there will be situations that are unpleasant, difficult and complex. I have written about athlete activism, sexism, racism and how politics are inextricably linked to sport.

At the same time, I revel in glorious tournaments, enjoy the thrill of competition and the journeys of victors, but also appreciate the grief and sadness of losses.

As a lifelong soccer player and someone with expertise and understanding of global football, being critical of the systems in which sport exists is part of my job — be it in Canada or overseas. 

Idris Elba, a handsome and charming actor, last week hosted the shiny and glamourous men's World Cup draw in Doha, Qatar ahead of the tournament in November. 

As much as I appreciate football stars and football media personalities, I also had questions about the darker side of the event. Sportswashing is when countries that have deplorable human-rights records use sports or mega-events to clean their global reputation. They use the vent as a type of shield from criticism and strategically shine a light on less uncomfortable issues. 

A person stands on an art exhibit of 6,500 soccer balls filled with sand to symbolize the reported deaths of migrant workers in Qatar brought in to build infrastructure for November's men's World Cup. (Ennio Leanza/Keystone via AP)

6,500 migrant workers dead

We are in a men's World Cup year and that is accompanied by excitement and joy — particularly for a country like Canada, whose men's team will be participating in for the first time in 36 years. But there is a more pressing number to consider; last year, The Guardian reported that since Qatar won the bid to host the men's World Cup, more than 6,500 men (predominantly from South Asia) have died while in indentured servitude in that country, often the result of terrible living conditions and heat, and from many causes that remain unclear. 

This is a situation that demands attention from mainstream soccer media, but there are so few news agencies reporting or investigating these issues further. Perhaps it is a situation where Qatar does not allow journalistic freedom the way that is required and necessary. The silencing of journalists and discouragement to report on issues within the sports world is hardly new in Qatar. We have seen it before in China and in Russia.

But we also know of an unwillingness of some journalists to ask the necessary questions. 

One of the new stadiums in Qatar built for November's tournament. (Getty Images)
A worker from India is pictured in his shared living quarters during a government organized media tour in 2015. (Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press)

Questions that should be asked

Human Rights Watch, an organization that monitors human-rights abuses around the world, offered journalists a primer on questions that journalists should be asking FIFA and Qatari authorities. These include pointed questions about upholding women's rights, unjust treatment of  LGBTIQ2S+ communities, why migrant workers have not been fairly paid for their work, and why the Qatari government has not published official statistics on the deaths of migrant workers

For the next eight months, stories and reports of teams, coaches and nations will overwhelm sports news. This is the first men's World Cup that will be hosted in the Middle East. (The first World Cup hosted in the Middle East region was a U17 women's tournament held in Jordan in 2016, another fact oft forgotten by the mainstream soccer media which is predominantly run by men.)

It leaves me wondering how much of this will be reports on the less enthralling world of football? The part that is deadly, corrupt and so deeply broken.

There are people who are raising their voices in opposition and questioning the methods and this madness. Norwegian soccer official Lisa Klaveness made some very important points at the FIFA congress held last week in Doha just ahead of the draw.

"In 2010, the World Cup was awarded by FIFA in unacceptable ways with unacceptable consequences," she said. "There is no room for employers who do not secure the freedom and safety of World Cup workers. No room for hosts that cannot legally guarantee the safety and respect of LGBTQ+ people coming to this theatre of dreams." 

Norwegian soccer official Lise Klaveness walks away after speaking during the FIFA congress on March 31. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

Questions for Canada, U.S. and Mexico

Klaveness is gay and her six-minute speech angered some representatives from South America and Qatar, who argued that it wasn't the place to raise these concerns. If the FIFA congress isn't the place to raise these critical issues, then where exactly is it? 

Officials in football and journalists should not carry this burden alone. Fans and communities who love the beautiful game ought to question national associations like Soccer Canada, United States Soccer Federation and Mexico Football Federation, which will be co-hosting the next men's World Cup in 2026. 

We should be asking Canada about pay equity for the women's team, particularly after winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics. In early February, I was on The Current with former Canadian national player Diana Matheson. Matheson spoke eloquently about the structural inequalities in Soccer Canada and why we should be asking questions during this thrilling time for soccer in Canada. 

Media, fans and officials should also be asking FIFA, Soccer Canada and USSF about the persecution of transgender children in the United States, the gentrification of neighbourhoods that occur with mega events, and the environmental impacts on cities and the communities that reside there. We should be asking the MFF about the brutal acts of femicide that plague Mexico. 

Just as the loss of life of migrant workers in Qatar is a bloodstain on the beautiful game, the issues that plague Canada, the U.S. and Mexico may bring unwanted attention to issues in North America. But if we don't ask these questions, if journalists don't probe, if fans don't demand better, then soccer is nothing but a hoax and a distraction. 

Soccer is one of the most-played sports in the world. It's a combination of beauty, artistry and athleticism. As such, the countries pretending to be guardians of it should do right by the people who love it; the people in whose neighbourhoods and countries will be hosting and paying. And as for the journalists covering the men's World Cup, as Off said, it is our obligation.


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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